FALL RIVER, Mass. — Across South Main St. from the Fall River Justice Center, Jeff Priest, a 33-year-old bartender, eyed the dinner menu at Taphouse Grille, a watering hole where he works in his hometown on Wednesday. He mentioned preparing lunches for jurors who will decide the homicide case against Aaron Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end who stands charged with first-degree murder. Priest described two options listed among the Courthouse Specials: the “Guilty Burger” and “Not Guilty Wrap.”
“Guilty Burger is definitely selling better,” Priest said.
Hernandez, 25, is scheduled to appear in court Thursday for opening statements in his trial as the Patriots get ready to square off with the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX, more than 2,600 miles southwest in Arizona. He has pleaded not guilty, waiting more than 18 months since his arrest in June of 2013 to have his fate decided by a jury of 13 women and five men. Last week, he huddled with his defense attorneys — James Sultan, Charles Rankin and Michael Fee — in Courtroom 7 as potential jurors were questioned about possible biases. Hernandez, dressed in suit and tie, walked around without handcuffs, wrote down impressions of potential jurors on a yellow pad given to him by Rankin and returned to his 7-foot-by-10-foot cell each night. Justice E. Susan Garsh will preside over the case.
Bristol County prosecutors alleged that Hernandez, acting with the help of Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace — friends from his hometown of Bristol, Conn. — killed Odin Lloyd, a construction worker who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee, Shayanna Jenkins, in the early morning hours of June 17, 2013. Lloyd was left to die in a clearing at an industrial park less than a mile from Hernandez’s expansive home in North Attleboro, Mass. Hernandez was taken from his house in handcuffs after local and state law enforcement officials pieced together cell-phone exchanges and surveillance videos to outline the period when Hernandez and his alleged accomplices picked up Lloyd.
William McCauley, the lead prosecutor on the case, fingered Hernandez in court at his arraignment, asserting that Hernandez “orchestrated the execution.” Ortiz and Wallace, who were also charged with murder, will stand trial separately.
Hernandez’s ties to the Patriots are expected to be explored by both sides during the trial. He had signed a five-year, $40 million contract 11 months before Lloyd’s murder, and professed to have changed his ways under the influence of coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft. Both men are on the potential witnesses list filed with the court. It is not known when they may be called to take the stand. Since being arrested for the Lloyd murder, Hernandez has also been charged with executing two immigrants living in Boston in 2012 when he was still with the Patriots. The team released Hernandez immediately after he was charged with Lloyd’s murder.
On Wednesday, as day faded into night, McCauley and Patrick Bomberg, his colleague, pulled up in front of the courthouse and emptied cardboard boxes filled with trial materials from vehicles. Court was closed for the day due to a blizzard the previous day. Police officers also unloaded their share of brown bags marked: “EVIDENCE.”
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